Photo by Danil Aksenov on Unsplash.

I came to prison mentally healthy, but years of repeated solitary confinement and abuse from prison staff have affected me in ways that I am still trying to understand and cope with. 

In 2018, I was taken to the Hole, where I was placed in solitary confinement, supposedly for my safety. But I stopped eating and drinking and attempted to hang myself. As a result, I was written up for several rule violations and spent five months in the Close Observation Area (COA).

The COA is where a prisoner is taken when he attempts suicide or notifies staff that he is thinking of harming himself. COA is much like a segregation cell except there is no table. Some also have no toilets. We are stripped of everything including clothes. They provide a smock, one blanket and no mattress. One must sleep on an elevated concrete slab or the floor. Food is served on a rubber tray with a paper spoon shoved through the cuff port, which is a small trap in the door. There is typically a large window or a camera through which a guard is monitoring the residents around the clock. At Washington State Penitentiary’s COA, it’s a large window.

I refused to wear the smock, so I wore nothing but my birthday suit. I couldn’t be humiliated more than I already was. Because the guards talked loudly all night long, I got little sleep, not that one would get much on a concrete slab. I also continued refusing food and liquids. I went almost 40 days without food. I weighed 255 pounds when I went in. By the time I left, I weighed 185 pounds. My feet cracked and bled. My lips were crusty and peeling. Don’t ask me what I was trying to accomplish, other than dying. 

According to policy, prison staff are required to encourage us to eat and monitor our vital signs. They force-feed you if your health deteriorates to a certain point. The only reason I was able to avoid it was because I knew that the law allows patients to refuse treatment, including checking vitals. The doctor and guards would ask what they could do to get me to eat, and I would ask for a grapefruit because it was something that was not on the prison menu but easily obtainable. They never acquiesced. 

I have met some interesting individuals in the COA. One of them is a person I will call Arkansas to protect his privacy. I first saw him hogtied, covered in feces, carried under the armpits by two guards followed by six others in riot gear. Arkansas was about 55 years old, 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed 195 pounds. According to his published appeal, he had schizophrenia and had spent more than a decade in segregation. He told me that when he gets tired of the same four barren walls he tells the guards he was going to kill himself, which got him a trip to the COA, where he could at least enjoy a different view.

Arkansas didn’t wear the smock either. He tore the safety blanket into strips and wore the strips around his waist like a kilt. He was also a professional poop smearer. Arkansas explained how he ate certain things to get the right consistency. While we were in the COA, he covered the windows in feces as well as the walls, ceiling, smoke detector, and vents. He then spit water into the smoke detector to set off the sprinklers. 

The sprinklers in COA consisted of two half-inch pipes protruding from the ceiling that shot out so much water that it flooded the entire tier. The sprinklers sometimes went off several times a day in different cells, but we didn’t mind because it broke the monotony. The guards hated it because it took hours for them to clean if they couldn’t find a prisoner to do it.

Another resident, who I will call Moses, ate plastic spoons, pens and any other item he could get a hold of. They switched our utensils to paper spoons because of him.  

Alvin was a professional cutter. He cut his veins on his wrists or inner thighs and painted the walls in a deep red splatter, which made them more colorful than their original sterile white shade. This earned him a trip to a cell with five point restraints on the concrete bed, where a guard sat in the cell and let one hand or leg loose every 30 minutes or so.

The most inventive patient was Mark. He took the ink tube from a pen, cut open a vein and inserted the hollow tube in it to prevent the vein from constricting. He almost got away with it, but one can only contain so much blood under a blanket before being discovered.

After five months in the COA for trying to hang myself, I was transferred to the Monroe Correctional Complex’s Special Offender Unit (SOU) and put in a cell with John. 

John didn’t sleep during the two months we were cellmates. He was obsessed with his tablet device. John tried to convince me that he was writing computer code and communicating with his sister who worked in the Pentagon through a video game on the device. Several prisoners told me he was the worst cellmate. He received around eight major infractions for stealing other prisoners’ tablets while I was there. 

SOU is akin to a residential treatment center or mental health hospital. To me, the environment was not much different than for the regular prison population except for the fact that the dayroom furniture was made of rubber. 

After 30 days there, and no real contact from the staff, I asked one of the guards if a mental health staff person would come talk to me. They were a little supprised that someone coming off suicide watch hadn’t spoken with a mental health professional. Eventually I talked to someone, but there was not much substance to the conversation.

At the two-month mark, my cellmate John was taken to the Hole for another infraction. I discovered he had stolen my earbuds and about $75 worth of food my family had purchased for me. I notified the unit sergeant, and my earbuds were returned after they searched him. Three days later, the sergeant said John was returning to the unit and asked if I would have a problem with it. I told the sergeant that my anger and stress level was so high I might “beat the shit out of” John. For that, I was taken to the Hole and given a major infraction for assault.

I never quite made it to the Hole. I held in my rage just long enough to make it to the holding tank before I unleashed my new coping skills. I screamed “fuck you!” at the top of my lungs over and over until my voice became hoarse and I spit up blood. I banged my head on the window until blood smear covered most of it. Then I tied my shirt around my neck to try to choke myself. I was taken again to the COA.

The SOU’s COA was a bigger room with a sink, toilet, a bigger window on the back wall, a small slit of a window on the steel door and a security camera. Instead of a concrete bed, there was an inch-thick hard rubber mat on the floor. I pooped on the floor and smeared it all over the windows and camera. I stuck my smock into the toilet and flushed until the room was flooded with water. The guards had seen this before. They brought a big cover made of steel and plexiglass and duck taped it on the door. “This is so you’ll have to smell your shit,” the guard said. 

After a couple days they took me to a shower so they could clean my cell. Again I stopped eating and drinking. The good thing about flooding your cell is that they shut off the water to both the toilet and sink, so it was really easy to not drink. Each day the guard would offer food. He called me a bitch when I would say, “No, thank you.” 

After two weeks of being called a bitch, I beat my head against the window until my blood covered it and demanded to talk to a captain. I never got to speak to the captain, but the guard did stop calling me a bitch. My infraction was converted to “threatening,” which was considered to be in the same category as assault. I was given nine days in the Hole. 

However, before they could move me, my custody level was raised because of the infraction, and I was transferred back to Washington State Penitentiary, which was a higher security level prison. 

After spending two days in its COA, I was released to the BAR (Baker, Adams, Rainer) units, which held a mix of mental health and protective custody prisoners. 

I have been back to the COA twice since returning to the Penitentiary. Once I was feeling very stressed and felt a compulsion to harm myself. The second time, a guard had overheard me tell another prisoner that if we all banned together and refused to work until they started serving us decent healthy meals, conditions would improve. 

In the BAR units, I have experienced people with varying degrees of mental health. Melvin had schizophrenia. I would hear him at night laughing randomly. I told others that he finally got the punchline to my joke. He normally had a good sense of humor, but one day, he asked me why I was trying to fight him. Then he asked why I hated short people like him. He also accused me of flexing my stomach when I spoke to him. I told him that I didn’t believe I had done this but apologized. 

Things went back to normal for a while, but he got more aggressive again. This time I told him that I would break his jaw if he stepped in my house. We were yelling this across the dayroom and I had hoped the guards would intervene, but they didn’t. Although they acknowledged that they were aware of the incident, their only response was ordering me to work alongside Melvin.

Arnold has been here for almost 40 years. He seems stuck in the 1970s and randomly speaks about John F. Kennedy, the unions and communists. He supposedly killed an entire family in the early 80s because they were communists. I can’t track the rest of his story the way he explains it, but he has told me that radio waves project flight simulators on his wall at night and people talk to him through the radio antennas. 

Sometimes people will leave a lunch or dinner tray out to be trashed in the dayroom, and Arnold will dig through it and eat the leftovers even if the trays were several days old. I keep extra bananas or oranges for him and now he comes to me when he’s hungry.

Then there was Jonas, a giving and caring soul. He made me two origami birds on a string. My praying mantis pet that I had for a while laid an egg sack on one of the birds. Jonas collected bugs for her and gave me tips on her care. He did the same for the kitten I had for a while. Jonas liked to eat things off the ground. On occasion he would blurt out, “I don’t like being called a bitch.” I would ask him who was calling him a bitch, and he would say he didn’t know. I told him not to worry because I would have a talk with them when he found out. 

Jonas overdosed two months after being released. I think he was planning it before he got out. The birds still hang in my cell. They bring me calm.

This is just a brief narrative because there is so much to say about mental health in prisons. Although I tend to be critical of prison staff who provoke and escalate mental illness, I have encountered several who have gone above and beyond in a stressful environment. For example, there was a guard at the SOU COA who used kind words to convince me to stop peeing on the floor. When she kept asking what she could do to get me to drink, I told her that I wanted ice. Ice was not allowed in the COA, but she walked down to the kitchen and brought back a large bucket of ice each day. She called my bluff, and I had to accept it.

I don’t understand why the prison staff give prisoners who are suicidal or experiencing mental health crises infractions, using isolation as both punishment and protection. 

Arkansas was a good example of someone who was harmed by the policy. When I knew him, he had more than 500 infractions for smearing poop and destroying blankets. They charged him a $75 fine each time, but he continued the behavior because of the infractions he received. Because of the behavior, they kept him in the Hole, where he can never pay the penalty or restitution. 

My observation of all the people I’ve come across is that people function well when they are properly medicated.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jeffrey McKee

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington.